Spring break sparks surge in Beaufort County tourism

gmartin@islandpacket.comMarch 16, 2012 

Janet Pepper, her boyfriend Adam Drake, left, and son Landon Pepper, 5, enjoy a perfect beach day at Coligny Beach on Friday afternoon while on a get-together with Janet's father, Frank Pepper, of Aiken.

JAY KARR, THE ISLAND PACKET

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This March is turning out to be the busiest in years for the local tourism industry.

Families have long visited the area during what local tourism experts fondly refer to as "spring break season," though this year the trend is especially noticeable.

"This March really came in like a lion for us," said Bill Haley, vice president of marketing for Resort Rentals of Hilton Head. "Spring break is definitely a big influence this time of year, and we've been much busier this March than last year."

Haley said his business' occupancy rate was up 15 to 20 percent from March 2011, suggesting the trend is so far proving immune to any effects brought on by this spring's soaring gas prices.

March typically brings an increase in business for local hotels, condos and villas. The doldrums of January and February give way to vacationing families that offer a brief boost to the local economy.

"Spring-break season runs from mid-March to mid-April," said Haley, "and it's always the first bump for us."

But this year is more of a boom than a bump, according to Tom Ridgway, owner of Hilton Head Rentals and Golf.

"This March, our occupancy rate is up 250 percent over last March," Ridgway said. "It's just shot up for some reason."

Ridgway attributed some of the increase to the mild weather, which may have prolonged what he calls "snowbird season" by a few weeks.

But much of it, he says, is driven by the calendars of school districts throughout the state and region.

"Once the snowbirds leave, they're replaced by a much younger crowd, and that extends into April, which is even busier than March," Ridgway said.

And it's not only Hilton Head that benefits from the influx of families.

Greta Maddox, owner of Seaside Getaways on Lady's Island, says she's committed to memory the spring break schedules of various school districts and local colleges and anticipates their impact each year.

"During the winter months, we handle a lot of long-term rentals, where people stay for a month or so," Maddox said. "But now through mid-April, our guests stay for only as long as their spring breaks last."

She added that her guests in March and April are almost exclusively vacationing families.

"After April, (our occupancy) dies back down to almost where it was during January and February," she said, "but that changes once school lets out for good in the summer."

Skip James, director of sales and marketing at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa, says his hotel recently adapted its promotional approach to capitalize on the spring-break crowd. Instead of the steep discounts it has touted in years past, it advertised a "Love Your Family" package.

The result is an occupancy rate about 10 percent higher than last March.

"We looked at the data and realized that individual family travel is going up steadily this time of year," James said.

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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